There is so much about Israel that is just strange to me. This visit has officially punctured any remaining illusions I had about the country. And this is difficult because the country still reminds me of my home, and my childhood.
Despite obvious concentrations of wealth in Tel Aviv, and the associated construction of high raises and glamor malls, huge pockets of the city lie in disrepair and neglect. The buildings are moldy, and most of the shops and streets seem unchanged. The Tel Aviv train-station looks like something out of sub-Saharan Africa. Broken elevators and bolted down windows. Busted tiling and dirty cats. Pigeons taking baths in rancid puddles of human urine. Electricity barely working; flickering fluorescent lights. Outside, a population of Ethiopian and Sudanese migrants, laboring in what seems to be an entirely neglected part of the city. This is the main transport hub locating a major capital to the rest of the country, and it’s gross.
But it’s also Tel Aviv proper which has a third world vibe. The food and culture and fashion and energy clearly make it “developed,” modern, and livable, but there is a kind of decayed and yellowing crappiness to most of the infrastructure. Many of the hotels and apartments look like they haven’t changed since 1987, and the building by Rabin Square looks like an abandoned compound in Baghdad; broken glass, fading tints, dusty windows.
The mangy cats are still a mainstay. The seaside is beautiful in some parts, but totally degraded and polluted in others. There is a pleasant and hip farmers market, where beautiful young families buy boutique cheeses, but the new buildings overlooking the Mediterranean already look old, underused, and underserved. You can take a pleasant evening jog on a paved path, but you have to avoid huge wads of plastic if you want to take an evening swim.
Here in T’veria, it’s the same story. The tayalet is filled with litter, and the water is rancid looking. Many of the restaurants are shuttered, windworn, and old. There is nothing inviting or polished about what could be a beautiful lakeside getaway. The apartments overlooking the Kineret look like the type of low income housing you see in the inner city. Yaffo is quite charming, and definitely a better experience than the center of Tel Aviv. But it’s still strange and disarming to see a growing population of young Jews gentrifying the Arab quarters, and expelling the natives because property value has become so high.
I’ve been hearing so much about the tech boom in Tel Aviv; how its economy survived the crash better than most other countries. But it’s hard to see how most of the country has benefited from the influx of wealth and capital. Right by “start up” central, there is abysmal Wi-Fi internet, and a strange lack of industrial growth on most normal streets. There are occasional parkways linking hip boulevards, and lovely vegan restaurants that serve organic wine, but these don’t characterize most of the city. This surprised me.
Thee lesson for me this go round is the wide disparity between illusion and reality. Tel Aviv is a “cool” city, but socioeconomically it clearly suffers from significant problems, and starkly uneven distributions of wealth. The people are cool, hip, and young, but there’s nothing truly exceptional about the Tel Aviv experience, especially when compared to other capitals. There is some high culture, but actually a strange absence of museums and aesthetic beauty. There are parks and cafes, but large clusters of rusted metal and rotting concrete in the alleyways. Maybe this makes Tel Aviv just like anywhere else; but Israel sells stories about the magic of its urban boom, when the reality is far worse than the dream they peddle. In some sense it’s progressive, but underneath the surface the city feels somewhat uninviting.
Not ironically, Israeli infrastructure looks more updated and scrupulously tended to in the West Bank, where new and expanding settlements snake across the landscape, leaving Palestinians to live on the margins, in degraded villages that connect to each other only through heavily militarized checkpoints. It’s clear to see how unfeasible the Two State project seems; there are too many facts on the ground, too many specially paved roads, developed parks, aquifers, water-systems, and an unending supply of cheap and exploitable labor for the Lords of the Land. There is no development or tax subsidy going to the rotting Palestinian neighborhoods, and the disparity in quality of life is clear to see.
Hebron is stabbed right into the heart of an Arab village; little Palestinian kids forced to walk past IDF storm troopers, and put their heads down so paranoid and messianic settlers can “Return to land stolen by Arabs in 1929,” while Palestinians can’t leave their closed little Bantustans without being harassed or interrogated by soldiers who treat them with apathy or suspicion.
We spend the day in Hebron, and drove to Gush HaTzion. We arrived at the Yeshiva, situated on a mountaintop strategically positioned above an Arab town, and listened to a lecture on new technologies that merge halakha with science. Most of these technologies were devoted to advancing surveillance techniques and protecting Gush from “terrorism.” The Gush olive trees are beautiful and tended to with great care. Young torah scholars fill the libraries, and go for jogs around large tracts of perfectly groomed olive trees.
There is a status quo atmosphere to the country; a lack of despair but also a lack of hope and excitement. Everything feels insulated, closed, and ideological. It’s hard, complicated, and claustrophobic. And it feels more different from my memory than ever before.